The Charlotte News



McCann Meets The Test

Miner's Experience Is Lesson In Philosophy

By W. J. Cash

Site ed. note: This purely human interest story, about an Irish coal miner who survived a cave-in and emerged after three days alive and still full of hubris, is unusual in Cash's writing career; perhaps the explanation for that paucity is implied from a sentence in the article, that such stories are, after all, "sentimental"; and Cash steered from over-sentiment like the plague. He saw sentiment as the chief underlying danger to the South historically--and still, far too over laden with sentimentality--with such often existing on a thin line just immediately the other side of which was madness and violence, the further such over-sentiment carried its host into unreality and romanticizing of the cruel past. And so he steered clear from encouraging the dread condition as much as could be accomplished without seeming in the process an old crusty, cold to sentiment and hence, the human race. So this piece demonstrates that overriding trait which Cash always had, complementary to his cautious nature about indulging in too much sentiment, inculcated most likely both from his Baptist upbringing and his observations growing up in a small, poor Southern hamlet, and which trait probably drove him to write more than any other, (one quite amply represented in The Mind of the South); that trait being a large, maybe even over-large, empathy for the underdog and an equally large respect for the triumph of the underdog over life's seemingly ritualistic attempts in one form or another to degrade the spirit. In the end, he probably saw some element of the underdog in all of us, at least in all save the dictators and demagogues, big and small, and their most loyal followers.

(The 1927 editorial to which Cash refers is not yet included at this site because we have as yet been unable to locate it, but hopefully it will be added at some future time.)

(Added note of July 29, 2002: Though this piece has been at the site since spring, 1999, last night, because of the news of the previous five days of nine miners trapped deep below the ground in Somerset, Pennsylvania, we re-read the story here of Mr. McCann trapped so long ago and thought of those miners' terrible condition in the cold, damp darkness and their struggle to survive against the odds. Today, we are happy to see that all nine were rescued alive. Kudos to them and their rescuers. The grit and spirit of old McCann still persists.)


I HAVEN'T much doubt that it would greatly surprise Mr. McCann, the Irish gentleman who came out of that mine in Missouri the other day boasting, "Boys, I can take it!"--I haven't much doubt that it would greatly surprise Mr. McCann to hear that under the definition of Montaigne and Cicero he is very distinctly a philosopher. None the less, it is so. For a famous essay the Gascon sage, taking as his text an observation of the old Roman orators, once upon a time set forth at the length of some fifteen to twenty thousand words is "Philosophie is to Learn How to Die." And no one, I take it, will care to dispute that, after his fashion, Mr. McCann somewhere along his way in this world, emphatically learned just that.

A more grueling test than this man met I have never heard of. I remember a story that rode over the copy desk on which I toiled along back in 1927. It was the story of a bum who had been picked up in a gutter with his feet and hands and nose and ears frozen. The doctor sawed away his feet and his fingers--and he awoke and gazed upon the havoc and grinned and cheerfully fell to wise-cracking with his nurse. Afterwards the medicos decided that his nose and ears must go. And that time again he awoke and met the gathering ruin in the same wise. And after that the gangrene set in, and three times more the sawbones carved on him. In these times, because he was too weak to stand any considerable dosing with anesthetics, they carved on him with the nerve circuits of his body wide open or all but wide open to the brain. But the bum, sweating in agony, grinned and joked through it all--steadfastly refusing to cry out or to make moan. And in the end when he was only the battered stump of a man, without legs and arms, without ears and without a nose, he had the nurse give him a puff from a cigarette, and with a jest upon his lips, died.

Brave Doff Their Plumes

When I had read that story I tossed it across to the managing editor. And when I saw him put on his best poker face and flush up under it and grin widely and suddenly over it, I knew that he felt the same idiotic impulse to bawl that I felt. Whereupon I wrote an editorial. And what I said was that it was bravado certainly, but such bravado as we could certainly very well use more of in this sorry world. What I said was that if this man was, in the ultimate scale, to be adjudged a bum, then God was going to have to be infinitely merciful to the rest of us. What I said was that I was confident that, whatever his crimes of omission and commission in the days of his strength, the slate was wiped clean. What I said was that all the grave and all the gesturing from the Archangel Michael to the Chevalier Bayard and Cyrano de Bergerac must certainly have been lined up in heaven with doffed plumes to salute his triumphant entry into their celestial company.

It was perhaps a somewhat sentimental effusion, but I somehow have remembered it with a kind of tenderness--as I have gratefully remembered the bum through all the years since.

But not even the bum met so searching a test as Mr. McCann met. Think of it. To sit for long days and nights in a cramped black hole with 80 feet of dirt between you and daylight. To sit for long days and nights with Death, in the shape of the impalpable mine lamp, seeping stealthily and inexorably in upon you. To sit thus and steadfastly tell comic stories to your three companions till two of them were dead at the hands of the damp and the third had lapsed into unconsciousness. To sit on thereafter for endless hours in the dark and silence--and come out in the end, not a madman but a perfectly normal Hibernian about his usual business of boasting.

Marvelous Nerve.

Say that Mr. McCann had extraordinary, stable equipment to begin with. I suspect that he did have. I suspect that the balance between his sympathetic, parasympathetic, and central nervous systems is a thing marvelous to think on. But for all that, do you suppose that terror did not seize him in the pit of the belly precisely as it would seize you and me? Do you suppose that as, one by one his companions died and grew mute, the back of McCann's brain did not see with dreadful clarity the things that happen in the grave? Did not look with awful clairvoyance upon his own naked whitening skull? that his flesh did not fearfully adumbrate the embrace of the conquering worm? Do you suppose that, as the pressure on his throat closed slowly home, as his breath came with ever mounting difficulty, there did not ten thousand times awaken and sweep through him, there did not pour with swelling clamor on his intelligence and will, the animal impulse to grovel and beg, to tear at those choking walls with naked fingers, to scream and beat his head and roll on the earth in abject frenzy? The impulse to escape into the oblivion of raving insanity?

We have to be grateful to Mr. McCann. We have to be grateful to all the philosophical gentry who have looked at death and estimated it as a thing which can and ought to be met with equanimity. We have to be grateful to the writers--to Montaigne and William Hazlitt and old Cicero. And more even than for his writings, we have to be grateful to Cicero for the way he met his end. For though he had often in his time demeaned himself in less than manly fashion, yet when the soldiers of Anthony came up with him in his flight to the frontier and its slaves were preparing to sell their lives for him, he proved that he had learned the lesson he himself had laid down, and waving aside the slaves, calmly stretched forth his neck to the executioner's sword.

Heart for All In His Deeds.

But most of all perhaps we have to be grateful to such as McCann. For he belongs to the ordinary workaday world--is such a commonplace mortal as most of us are--such a commonplace mortal as those of us who, reading in Montaigne or Cicero or Hazlitt, sometimes suspect darkly that after all these utterances are too high and lofty for our reach. There is heart for us all in the record of his deeds. And over and beyond, there is testimony (which just because of his commonplaceness, is of the most convincing sort) that, Spanish wars to the contrary notwithstanding, man is after all something more than a somewhat more cunning and particularly murderous rat.

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